Anthony Minghella

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It is part of the interest of this film that it is not easily summarized. The present tense of the film is the final year of World War II, the setting a bomb-damaged villa in the hills north of Florence, the action four characters seeking shelter there and attempting to undo some of the damage of the war.

The title character (Ralph Fiennes), whose identity is a mystery at the beginning of the film, was badly burned all over his body when his plane crashed in the desert. He lies in a bed, morphine deadening his pain and loosening his memory, reminiscing about a love affair with Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his career in military intelligence as a desert expert

The young Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche), emotionally shut down as the result of her work in the war and the death of her lover, has refused to withdraw with her Red Cross unit and lovingly tends to the badly burned patient and develops an intimate relation with Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh munitions expert who by day disarms unexploded mines and bombs. An American nicknamed Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a criminal who has been recruited by military intelligence, shows up and probes with increasing intensity into the mystery of the history and identity of the "English" patient, who he believes in some way responsible for the amputation of his thumbs by the Germans.

Much of the film consists of flashbacks through the point of view of the English patient, who it turns out is a Hungarian count, Laszlo Almasy, an explorer and geographer of the north African desert, who in his deep devotion to Katherine Clifton did in fact commit a treasonous act that indirectly led to Caravaggio's amputations. The film ends with Caravaggio finally forgiving the badly wounded Almasy, Hana granting Almasy's request of a peaceful death, and she herself leaving for Florence, where we expect she will meet Kip, who has just been reassigned there.

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